COM­FORT FOOD FOR THE SOUL

There is no snack more pop­u­lar with the Shang­hainese dur­ing win­ter than a hum­ble bag of freshly roasted chest­nuts

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI -

xu­jun­qian@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Xiangx­i­ang Chest­nut, a tiny shop space sell­ing roasted chest­nuts, is sit­u­ated in the same neigh­bor­hood as An­gelina, an el­e­gant Parisian tea house that ad­ver­tises it­self as the fa­vorite cafe of the late Coco Chanel, as well as be­ing the most au­thor­i­ta­tive patis­serie for Mont Blanc, a pureed chest­nut cake.

Busi­ness at An­gelina has been brisk since its open­ing last year, with an end­less stream of cus­tomers en­ter­ing and leav­ing the bright and spa­cious out­let dur­ing week­ends. How­ever, Zhang Rongx­i­ang, the owner of Xiangx­i­ang Chest­nut, be­lieves that the cafe’s pop­u­lar­ity could just be “a flash in the pan”, while his of­fer­ings, on the other hand, have for decades re­mained as the peren­nial fa­vorite among lo­cals.

Come win­ter, chest­nut ven­dors can be found at al­most ev­ery street cor­ner in down­town Shang­hai. A dis­tinc­tive aroma fills the air and it is ac­com­pa­nied by the sound of shov­el­ing as ven­dors toss the chest­nuts in woks filled with black sand, oil and malt sugar in or­der to re­move the dust and dirt from the shells.

The chest­nuts in Shang­hai are no dif­fer­ent in look and taste from those one would find in other parts of the world, but what sets them apart is the mas­sive pop­u­lar­ity they enjoy among the lo­cals who see th­ese nuts as a source of com­fort. Many Shang­hainese can be found brav­ing the rains and bone-chilling winds dur­ing win­ter just to queue for this hum­ble snack.

“It’s not about the food. The idea of walk­ing with a bag of siz­zling chest­nuts in hand and crack­ing them open later for the plump, golden yel­low ker­nel is a ro­man­tic and al­lur­ing no­tion for many lo­cals,” said Jiang Yizheng, a food guru in Shang­hai who is also known among her read­ers as Zhi­jian­sha, which in Chi­nese means “a hand­ful of dust”.

“En­joy­ing chest­nuts is akin to a

Jiang Yizheng, cel­e­bra­tion of the ar­rival of win­ter, just like hav­ing ice cream in sum­mer. And the fact that Shang­hai doesn’t grow its own chest­nuts makes this com­mod­ity even more cher­ished,” she added.

It is es­ti­mated that a to­tal of 1,500 tons of chest­nuts are shipped to Shang­hai ev­ery year from Qianxi, He­bei prov­ince, dubbed as the “home­town of China’s chest­nuts”. How­ever, in­dus­try in­sid­ers be­lieve that the amount of chest­nuts con­sumed by the city’s 24-mil­lion pop­u­la­tion might ac­tu­ally be twice as much.

Zhang was tight-lipped about the source of his nuts, say­ing that only he and his wife are privy to this confidential in­for­ma­tion.

“It’s from some­where south (in China),” said Zhang, who re­fused to di­vulge more. He be­lieves that his roasted chest­nuts are ranked among the top in the city be­cause of their unique place of ori­gin. In­deed, one would find that Xiangx­i­ang Chest­nut is listed on nu­mer­ous food web­sites, many of which rave about the taste and qual­ity of his prod­uct.

Hav­ing started out as a fruit re­tailer who re­sorted to sell­ing chest­nuts to earn some ex­tra pocket money dur­ing win­ter, Zhang now has three staff and four ma­chines whirling round the clock to process chest­nuts. Xiangx­i­ang Chest­nut is so pop­u­lar with lo­cals that an av­er­age of three to four tons of chest­nuts — priced at 27.6 yuan per kilo ($4.3) — are sold ev­ery day.

Dur­ing a visit to his shop one week­day morn­ing, Zhang noted that busi­ness was slow, as com­pared to times when queues would form as early as seven in the morn­ing. Zhang said that peo­ple of­ten buy roasted chest­nuts be­fore go­ing to work as the snack helps them to kill time in the of­fice. How­ever, he wel­comed the lull in busi­ness, say­ing that it al­lowed his wife to take a break and have a proper break­fast.

As chest­nuts are a sea­sonal prod­uct, Zhang and his wife only work six months a year. They spend the rest of the time trav­el­ing around the coun­try, sub­let­ting their shop space to other sea­sonal food busi­nesses, like ven­dors who sell green bean cakes in sum­mer.

At Xin­changfa, a cen­tury-old brand that many se­nior cit­i­zens deem to be the best in the city, busi­ness has been stable but not as brisk as Zhang’s.

“It’s some­thing that peo­ple are un­likely to crave ev­ery day. Aside from a hand­ful of fre­quent cus­tomers, most of our pa­trons are passers-by at­tracted by the aroma of the roasted nuts,” said Li Shil­iang, gen­eral man­ager of the now state-owned com­pany.

Founded as a sub­sidiary of a mom-and-pop gro­cery store in 1935, Xin­changfa sells its chest­nuts at a higher price of 49.6 yuan per kilo and Li jus­ti­fies this by say­ing that the com­pany only uses the best from Qianxi. How­ever, Li also con­ceded that the high price of their chest­nuts has likely put off some of the younger cus­tomers. The amount of roasted chest­nuts sold at Xin­changfa’s out­lets in the city is equal to the what Zhang sells at his one store.

“It’s all a mat­ter of taste,” said Du Caiqing, the ex­ec­u­tive chef at Xin­dalu, a Chi­nese restau­rant along the Bund. “Southern chest­nuts are smaller in size and sweeter in taste, while north­ern ones boast a stick­ier tex­ture.”

Du added that al­though Shang­hainese don’t of­ten cook us­ing chest­nuts, sea­sonal dishes fea­tur­ing th­ese nuts are al­ways pop­u­lar at his restau­rant. For the win­ter menu this year, Du is serv­ing an ap­pe­tizer made from chest­nuts, pump­kin and hawthorn jam.

“Win­ter is the sea­son when crea­tures in na­ture go into hi­ber­na­tion, leav­ing us chefs fewer things to cook. Chest­nuts are per­haps the one lit­tle sweet treat left for us. It’s na­ture’s candy,” he said.

The idea of walk­ing with a bag of siz­zling chest­nuts in hand and crack­ing them open later for the plump, golden yel­low ker­nel is a ro­man­tic and al­lur­ing no­tion for many lo­cals.”

re­view writer

a food guru and food

PHO­TOS BY GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

Zhang Rongx­i­ang (right) says that his chest­nuts are es­pe­cially de­li­cious be­cause of their place of ori­gin which he has kept a se­cret.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

The chest­nut prod­ucts sold by cen­tury-old Xin­changfa.

GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

A glis­ten­ing shell is re­vealed af­ter mix­ing the chest­nuts with black sand, sugar and oil.

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